Thursday, December 11, 2014

Top 10 Shortstops Not in the Hall of Fame

So close for Dick Allen.  

Earlier this week, the Baseball Hall of Fame Veteran's Committee considered players from its Golden Era ballot but ended up electing none of them into Cooperstown.  Dick Allen and Tony Oliva came the closest - each missed by one vote.  Also missing out were Gil Hodges and Ken Boyer, players mentioned in this blog when we looked at the first basemen and third basemen who missed out. 

So I thought it would be a good time to move around the diamond and look at the shortstops. Shortstop is a tough position to evaluate because it's so demanding defensively that offensive production is frequently not expected.  Many "great" shortstops have had a light bat.  There's Mark Belanger and Marty Marion (who aren't in) and Ozzie Smith and Rabbit Marranville (who are).  Expectations changed somewhat in the 80s with Ripken, Yount and Trammell and most especially in the 21st century with A-Rod, Jeter and Garciaparra.  Slick gloves and sluggers alike make this list. 

Here are the top 10 shortstops who are not in the hall of fame:

10.       Tony Fernandez

The 1980s saw the first wave of Dominican shortstops making their mark in the major leagues.   Tony Fernandez was one of the first, and probably still ranks as the best (save for Miguel Tejada but his steroid issues will mar his legacy).   He was a journeyman by the end of his career, but for a four-year stretch with the Blue Jays in the 1980s, he was terrific – twice batting over .300 and winning 4 gold gloves.  

9.         Cecil Travis

A career .314 hitter, Travis had the misfortune of:  1) playing for the Washington Senators, and 2) having his career interrupted in World War II.  And not just interrupted - Travis reportedly suffered a severe case of frostbite in the Battle of the Bulge.  Bill James ranks him as the best candidate among the players who may have lost a Hall of Fame career to World War II.

8.         Bert Campaneris

A key cog in the great A”s teams of the 1970s, Campaneris actually started with the A’s in 1964 when they played in Kansas City.  He was a 4-time All Star with Oakland and finished his career with over 2200 hits and 646 stolen bases.

7.         Maury Wills

A 5-time All Star with the L.A. Dodgers, Wills practically rediscovered the stolen base, breaking Ty Cobb’s 47-year old single-season record in 1962, with 104 stolen bases.  He won the NL MVP award in 1962.  

6.         Jim Fregosi

He’s best remembered as the player who was traded to the Mets for Nolan Ryan – surely one of worst trades in baseball history.  But people forget why it seemed like a good trade at the time.  Fregosi, an original Los Angeles Angel, was a terrific shortstop - a 6-time All Star and, easily, the best hitting shortstop in the American League in an era dominated by pitching.  But he had some injuries and, of course, he was a bust with the Mets.

5.         Dave Concepcion
          For my money, Concepcion was the most underrated player on the great Red Machine team of the 1970s.  He was best known for his defense - his 5 Gold Gloves, his great range and strong arm.  But he also batted .280 or better 8 times and finished his career with 9 All Star game appearances and over 2300 hits.
            4.          Nomar Garciaparra

The 1980s gave the American League Cal Ripken, Robin Yount and Alan Trammell.  The late 1990s introduced an even more promising trio of young shortstops – Jeter, A-Rod and Nomar.   Jeter and A-Rod are now done with their spectacular careers and only injuries have kept Nomar from joining them.   He’s eligible for the first time this year, but he didn’t have the longevity he needed to mount a serious campaign.  Still, between 1997 and 2003, in the 6 full seasons he was healthy, Nomar batted .300 or more 6 times, won 2 battling titles (batting over .350 twice), and drove in 100 runs 4 times. 

3.          Bill Dahlen

It’s hard to know how to rank players from the dead ball era, but it’s hard to ignore Bill Dahlen, a player with 2.461 career hits who was a power hitter for the Cubs, Brooklyn Superbas and N.Y. Giants around the turn of the century and a wizard with the glove. 

1.                  2.        Vern Stephens

In the 20th century, only Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken hit for more power from the shortstop position. Stephens starred for both the St. Louis Browns and Boston Red Sox and between 1942 and 1950, no major league player had more RBIs (938) and only Ralph Kiner hit more home runs.

1.         Alan Trammell

In 20 years with the Tigers, he hit .285 with 2365 hits, 412 doubles, 185 homers, 1003 RBI, 1231 runs and 236 stolen bases. He was a six-time All-Star who won four Gold Gloves and three Silver Slugger awards – not bad considering he had to contend with Ripken and Yount.  And, he was a key player and World Series MVP for the great Detroit Tiger team of 1984. He probably belongs in Cooperstown.

Honorable Mention:  Alvin Dark, Dick Groat, Marty Marion, Johnny Pesky


Friday, August 1, 2014

Top 10 Third Basemen Not in Cooperstown

Last weekend, Cooperstown saw the induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame of three worthy players (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas) and perhaps the three most successful managers of the last quarter century (Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre).  In the last 15 years, only 2 third basemen have been voted into the Hall –  Wade Boggs and Ron Santo.   And unless the Veterans pick someone from this list below, we won’t see another 3rd baseman selected until 2018 when Chipper Jones is elected.

Here are my top 10 Hall of Fame eligible third basemen who are not in the Hall:

10.       Ron Cey
The Penguin  was part of the Dodger’s great infield of the 1970s – joining Garvey, Lopes and  Russell.   A 6-time All Star, Cey hit over 300 home runs, had 1,000 RBIs and was co-MVP of the 1981 World Series.

9.         Robin Ventura
The Mets infield of the late 1990s didn’t stay together as long as the Dodger infield of the 1970s, but for a year or two, it might have been the best fielding infield of all time.  Ventura won 6 Gold Gloves (5 with the White Sox) and was also a solid hitter, finishing his career with 294 home runs and 8 seasons with at least 90 RBIs.  He’ll always be remembered by Met fans for his post-season walk-off Grand Slam single in the 15th inning against the Braves

8.        Buddy Bell
A terrific fielder and solid hitter for the Indians and Rangers, Bell was a 5-time All Star and winner of 6 Gold Glove awards.  He finished his career with over 2500 hits and 200 home runs.

7.       Sal Bando

The captain of the great mustachioed  Oakland teams of the 1970, Bando was a clutch hitter, a 4-time All Star and twice finished in the top 3 of the A.L. MVP voting.  He was the 2nd American league third baseman, after Brooks Robinson, to hit 200 home runs.

6.       Al Rosen
If he had a longer career, Rosen would have been a certain Hall of Famer but he spent 4 years in the Navy during World War II.    Between 1952 and 1955, the Hebrew Hammer was the best third baseman in the game, twice leading the league in home runs and RBIS.  In 1953, he won the MVP with 45 homeruns, 145 RBIS, and with a batting average of .336, he missed out on the Triple Crown by a percentage  point. 

5.       Bob Elliott

A 7-time All Star for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Braves, Elliott won the National League MVP in 1947 and helped the Braves win the Pennant the following year. 

4.      Darrell Evans
Bill James argues that Evans is the most underrated player in baseball history.  He was the national league’s version of Graig Nettles – low batting average, good power, excellent fielder.    After 15 years with the Braves and Giants in the National League, Evans joined the Tigers and became the oldest player to lead the league in home runs (40 in 1985) and the first player to hit 40 home runs in both leagues.  For many years, before the power/steroid explosion cheapened home runs, Evans held a distinction of being one of only 2 players with 400 home runs who were ignored by Cooperstown.  (Dave Kingman was the other).  

3.       Stan Hack

Stan Hack was a criminally underrated third baseman for the Cubs.  Hack played in the 1930s and 40s and wasn’t a power hitter, like Santo.  He was a lead-off hitter and 5-time all-star who batted .301 for his career and had 7 seasons of 100 runs scored.   He also batted .348 in four World Series.  Yes, that’s right.  The Cubs used to play in the World Series. 

2.       Graig Nettles

A terrific fielder, Nettles probably deserved to win more than 2 Gold Glove but he played at the same time as Brooks Robinson at the beginning of his career, and then Buddy Bell.   He’s deservedly remembered for his fielding heroics in the 1978 World Series and when he left the Yankees for the Padres in 1984, he had more career home runs than any American League third baseman.  

1.       Ken Boyer

Cardinal third baseman was an 11-time All Star game selection  and a 5-time gold glove winner who hit 282 home runs batted .287 and won the National League MVP in 1964.   

Honorable Mention:  Garry Gaetti, Ken Keltner, Bill Madlock, Tim Wallach, Matt Williams.



Friday, July 4, 2014

World Cup Bites: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

56 games down - 8 more to go. Four years ago, it was the vuvazela, that annoying plastic horn that was the symbol of the World Cup, held in South Africa. This time, it's the samba, the carnival, the rhythms of Brazil, the sacred land of the beautiful game. It's a huge upgrade.

The Good. The soccer has been amazing. So far, this year's World Cup has delivered just about everything a soccer fan can hope for. Lots of goals (a record 136 in group play), close games, breakout stars (James Rodriguez of Colombia), upsets (Costa Rica?), multiple subplots, thrills, agony and heartbreak. And if you're not a fan, well....who cares? I used to concern myself with the idea of "selling" soccer to the U.S. audience and convincing the doubters and the soccer-hating American exceptionalists that soccer is actually a terrific game, worthy of our nation's short attention span. Every 4 years, I would beseech the soccer gods, Please, give us a thrilling game. But the soccer gods are cruel. And so the big games, the ones that drew a large American audience - the final game, and the games involving the U.S. team – tended to be dull or controversial affairs. There have been 0-0 games won on penalty kicks (which can either be thrilling or unsatisfying depending on your point of view), or 1-0 games decided by a controversial penalty call. There was Zinedine Zidane's headbutt and now there is the furor over Luis Suarez's bite.

But none of that matters. Soccer is here to stay. Even if the remaining eight matches are snoozers (unlikely), we are well past the tipping point in this country. No, soccer will not be as big as American football.  It doesn't need to be. Soccer jerseys are flying off the store shelves. Messi, Ronaldo, Dempsey, Neymar. Highlights from games played in England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga are routinely shown on ESPN Sportscenter. The average attendance for a MLS game in Seattle is over 44,0000. Kids in the USA are playing and adults are watching. More Americans watched the U.S. vs. Portugal match than the NBA or NHL finals or the World Series. And they liked what they saw. Three of the four U.S. matches were terrific and tense and if you were fortunate to watch any of them in a bar or public place, you know that the shared experience - the outbursts and expressions of joy and hope, outrage and frustration - is unique and not something you'll forget anytime soon.

So the U.S. is out. Although, they only won a single game, they performed well. Tim Howard's heroic performance versus Belgium, puts him into the argument about who is the greatest U.S. player of all time. In hockey, 16 saves in one game is not a lot. In soccer, it's huge - Howard's 16 saves were a World Cup record. What that means is the Belgium badly outclassed the U.S. And yet, the U.S. still could have won the game (or tied in extra-time) and that is precisely what is so wonderful and maddening about soccer.

Once the group play ended, and the knock-out rounds began, the goals dried up, but the excitement did not. Brazil and Costa Rica advanced on penalty kicks. France and Netherlands squeaked by with late goals, and Germany, Belgium and Argentina finished at 0-0 and eventually won their games in extra time. This was heart-stopping stuff and no team looks invincible. This is a promising sign for those of us looking for more thrills.

The Bad: There's not much left to write about Luis Suarez and his biting of Italian defender, Giorgio Chiellini. What struck me as so distasteful (no, I will not make the joke about Chiellini's shoulder), were the denials and cries of victimhood on the part of Suarez's Uruguayan coaches and teammates. My favorite was Uruguay's slow-footed captain, Diego Lugano claiming that the bite marks on Chiellini's shoulder were already there and were not caused by Suarez's teeth. Really? When Lugano considers his next career (and judging by his performance for West Brom last year, he'll need to very soon), he should not become a criminal defense lawyer. Suarez himself claimed that he tripped and fell into the Italian defender. He has since retracted this absurd excuse and apologized for the biting and promised that it won't happen again. He apologized to Chiellini but he hasn't apologized to Uruguay for letting his team and his nation down.  That's the part that's curiously missing. Now, of course, there is considerable outrage over the severity of his suspension. According to some (including all 3 million people in Uruguay, it seems), it is hypocritical for FIFA to punish Suarez so severely for biting, when far more dangerous transgressions - two-footed tackles etc. - often go unpunished. They act as if Suarez is being suspended merely for bad manners. Yes, soccer is a violent game, but if you can't understand why biting an opponent in a sporting match is different from kicking at an opponent's knee, I doubt I'll succeed in explaining it.

And how I love the conspiracy theories! According to the apologists of biting, there is a witch-hunt against Suarez because the powers that be, in FIFA and the British press, favor European nations and don't want smaller latin countries, like Uruguay, to do well in the tournament. (The irony is that the Italians were spinning the exact opposite conspiracy theory – they say the match officials failed to toss Suarez from the game against Italy because FIFA needs stars like Suarez for ratings.) In fact, the primary beneficiary of the Suarez suspension was not Europe, but Uruguay's next opponent, Colombia. Colombia has also been without their best player, Falcao, due to injury but they nevertheless took care of business, dispatching a Suarez-less Uruguay 2-0 behind their new rising star, James Rodriguez. Colombia has, arguably, been the team of the tournament so far and now they play a quarter-final match against the host, Brazil. No offense to Colomiba, but I would have loved see a quarter-final match-up between Uruguay and Brazil instead. And I suspect FIFA would have loved it too because it would have meant a rematch of the most famous football match ever played on South American soil – the mythical final game of the 1950 World Cup, when Uruguay stunned mighty Brazil 2-1 to win the world cup at Brazil’s sacred stadium, the MaracanĂ£. What a subplot that would have been. But for every subplot that is denied, a new one is born and this afternoon, Colombia will try to traumatize a new generation of Brazilians with an upset of Brazil’s Selecao on their home soil.

The Ugly. If Brazil lose this afternoon, the ensuing rioting will probably be the ugliest thing about the World Cup. But I’m most interested in what happens on the pitch. So let’s talk about diving. Unlike biting, which does not actually give your team an advantage (don’t flatter Suarez by calling him a cheater, call him a psychopath), diving is a form of cheating that is often rewarded. This has always been a problem with soccer. Some players try to draw penalties by falling to their ground when they’re not even touched. In other cases, the cheating is more subtle. The player is clearly fouled but he exaggerates the impact and falls to the ground in order to sell the call. Which brings us to Arjen Robben of the Netherlands.

Arjen Robben is a diver. He’s also a world class attacker who has impeccable skill and is blazing fast with the ball at his feet. Let’s flash back to the World Cup final match in 2010. Spain and Netherlands were deadlocked at 0-0 after 82 minutes when Arjen Robben, with a burst of speed, broke free with a chance on goal. The Spanish maned defender, Carles Puyol (who resembles Dee Snider of Twisted Sister), prevented the goal by attaching himself to Robben’s back just outside the penalty area. It was a clear foul, but Robben stayed on his feet, struggled to stay with the ball and there was no call. If Robben had fallen to the ground, there surely would have been a foul called and either a penalty kick or free kick just outside the box. Perhaps Puyol would have been ejected. Instead, Spain went on to win the game, and the World Cup, in extra-time, 1-0.

Did Robben learn a lesson? If there’s contact in the box, fall to the ground – let the referee see that you’ve been fouled. Maybe. After all, those fouls are hard-earned. Robben uses great skill to put himself in those positions. And so when Holland came from behind to beat Mexico last Sunday, it was because Robben made a great play and then play-acted. His foot came into contact with the foot of Mexico’s Rafa Marquez, and Robben went down like he was shot. The penalty was called and the goal scored on the penalty kick was the difference in the game. Whether or not Robben’s conduct was justified, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. There was nothing cheap about Robben’s two goals against Spain in Holland’s 5-1 win in the opening round. This goal felt cheap.

I hate to see games decided that way and I hope we see less of that sort of thing as we head to the quarterfinal and semifinal matches. But if the final 8 matches are as exciting as most of the previous 56, it won’t really matter.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Monsters and Memories

The 1985 Bears were unforgettable. They were ferocious, colorful, and controversial and their defense was the best that I have ever seen.  Rich Cohen has written a book that does justice to that team and its legacy.  It is, quite simply, the best book about football that I have ever read.

The best sports books are never just about sports.  They are about life, about culture and about ourselves.  Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football is one of those books.  It is part Fever Pitch in the way that Cohen shares the joy, heartbreak and obsessions of a fan.  It is part Boys of Summer as he tracks down and interviews the broken, fading warriors, now 20 years retired.  It is also part history as Cohen retells the story of the Chicago Bears and its founder Papa Bear, George Halas, who practically invented the National Football League.  Even though Cohen is only writing about football, he manages to capture something of the energy, rhythms and history of 20th century America.  He traces the origins of this violent game, played by the children of immigrants in factory towns like Decatur, Canton, Akron, Muncie and Racine. This game would evolve into our national religion. 
Rich Cohen grew up in Glencoe Illinois, an affluent lakeside suburb of Chicago that was home to Ferris Bueller.  In 1985, Cohen was 17 years old.  It was the age of Reagan and MTV – a golden age for John Hughes movies but a miserable time to be a sports fan in Chicago.  The Cubs and White Sox were legendary losers.  Their last World Series wins had come in 1908 and 1917.  In hockey, the Blackhawks were competitive but they hadn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1961.  Hope had arrived on the hardwood in the form of Michael Jordan, but in 1985, he was still finding his air.  He was still a rookie on a mediocre Bulls team.
Chicago’s most recent sports championship had come in 1963.  On a frigid day in December, just one month after JFK was assassinated, the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants 14-10 at Wrigley Field to win the NFL title.  The Bears were best known for their ferocious defense, the famed “Monsters of the Midway” (a nickname that actually originated with the University of Chicago football team coached by Amos Alonzo Stagg).  The Bear team of 1963 also featured an outstanding 24-year-old tight end, from the coal-mining town of Carnegie Pennsylvania.  His name was Mike Ditka.

After 1963, the Bears plummeted to mediocrity and despite fielding some of the finest players in NFL history – Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers and eventually, Walter Payton – they lost more than they won.  Things started to turn around in the early 1980s when defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan defense began building a solid defense, called the 46, after the number worn by safety, Doug Plank.  But the turning point came in, 1982 when George Halas hired Mike Ditka as head coach.   Ditka, the gum-snapping, sweater-vest-wearing, bullet headed martinet with the icy blue stare, brought a winning attitude and was the perfect symbol for Chicago.  Tough, unyielding, unforgiving and, on occasion, completely out of control.  He would turn things around.

Like Cohen, I also misspent my youthful passion rooting for a bad team, the NY Giants of the 1970s (and a worse one, the Mets).  For me, the rise of the Bears was fascinating to behold.  I had always admired the Bears.  Like my Giants, they had the old school mystique of a storied franchise that had fallen on hard times.  I loved watching those NFL Films clips of Butkus and the earlier Monsters of the Midway of the 1950s and 60s, their white uniforms covered in mud, their hands and forearms taped and bloodied.  The Greco-Roman columns at Soldier Field made them seem like gladiators.  Their breath in the frigid cold poured out of their facemasks like dragons breathing fire.

By the middle of the 1980s, the Bears started playing well.  It happened just as my Giants started playing well.  But in 1985 the Bears were better.  Better than anyone. The defense was frightening.  Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, Otis Wilson, Wilbur Marshall, Gary Fencik were magnificently brutal.  On offense, Walter Payton was past his prime but still a joy to behold, gracefully high-stepping through defenses, palming the ball like a toy, and, and lowering his shoulder to hit linebackers before they could hit him.   Then there was Jim McMahon, the rebel, rock star quarterback who broke the rules, swaggered and won.  And there was the media sensation, William “the Fridge” Perry and then the Super Bowl Shuffle.  The Bears were everywhere and for some reason, I absolutely loved it. 

They finished the regular season 15-1.  Then they embarrassed my beloved Giants in the Playoffs 21-0, and, if anything, the score made the game seem closer than it actually was.   OK, I may be biased and perhaps tad bitter about the memory, but I think Cohen pours it on a bit too much here.  Giant fans will wince when remembering how punter, Sean Landeta whiffed on a punt, leading to the Bears first touchdown.  Landeta says that a gust of wind misdirected the ball just before he was to kick it but Cohen doesn’t buy it.  He’s so taken with the mythology of the mighty Bears that he thinks that Landeta was so terrified of the Bear onslaught, that he couldn’t keep his eye on the ball.  But why?  Landeta was a punter, not a quarterback.  Yes, many players trembled before the mighty bears, but punters don’t get hit.  In any event, it was a brutal loss, but I can forgive the Bears for this humiliation and I can forgive Cohen for making me relive it.  After all, the Bears humiliated everyone in 1985.  They beat the Cowboys 44-0.  They beat the Rams in the NFC Championship Game, 24-0, and they beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl 46-10 in what was then the most lopsided result in Super Bowl history.
For me, it got better. The Giants rebounded from this loss and won the Super Bowl the following year.  And since 1986, they’ve won three more.  But it has now been 28 years since the Bear’s Super Bowl win of 1985.  In that time, Chicago has moved forward with urban renewal and the Bulls, Blackhawks and even the White Sox have all won championships.  But the Bears have not.  Another generation of Chicago football fans has grown up knowing only frustration and the disappointment of close calls.  For them, the legend of the 1985 Bears looms larger than ever.

Cohen’s look back at the casualties, the retired and fallen players, is especially poignant.   Walter Payton died of a rare liver disease in 1999, but also struggled with drugs and depression after he retired.  The Bear’s hard-hitting All-Pro safety, Dave Duerson, committed suicide in 2011 at the age of 50.  He shot himself in the chest so that his brain could be studied.  Sure enough, researchers found he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the result of repeated blows to the head.  The symptoms include dementia, memory loss, aggression and depression.  Jim McMahon suffers from memory loss and is one of 75 retired players suing the NFL for allegedly failing to disclose what it knew about the dangers of concussions.  William Perry had problems with alcohol, gained weight and suffers from a disorder to the nervous system.

Cohen brings his skills as a journalist as he recounts his visits with the retired players.  There’s magic and real joy in the memories but the telling is also bittersweet. The tale of the retired athlete is often a sad one.  Most of us are just figuring things out when we reach our thirties.  But the professional athlete is finished.  Hopefully, he is smart with his money.  (Gary Fencik, the All-Pro “Hit Man” from Yale is an investment advisor.)  Many are not.  There is often physical pain, the toll exacted from the years of pounding.  Of course many find other paths and enjoy the fulfillment that comes with family and career.  But these are not the same as the rush, excitement and feeling of brotherhood that came on Sunday.

The reverence that Chicagoans have for Mike Ditka is the stuff of both legend and caricature.  Cohen takes us beyond the Ditka of Saturday Night Live and the State Farm commercials and helps us appreciate the man and understand why his bond with Chicago’s football fans was so real and so deep.  After the Super Bowl win of 1985, the Bears under Ditka enjoyed several excellent seasons, winning 4 division titles but they failed to make it back to the Super Bowl.  In 1992, the Bears went 5-11 and lost 8 of the last 9 games.  Rich Cohen was 24 and working in New York for Rolling Stone magazine when he learned that the Bears had fired Ditka.  When he heard the news, he left the building and sat down on the curb and began crying.  He knew that something was over and it wasn’t coming back. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

20 Best Albums of 2013

 You won't find Kanye West on my best of 2013 list.  But you will find some black metal, instrumental guitar and a sampling of pop from around the British Isles.   Here are my top albums of 2013:

20.  Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt

I have this fantasy that Pearl Jam, the boys now pushing 50, will come out with an album so amazing that it will transcend even their best work of the 1990s.   Lighting Bolt isn't that.  But it's very good.  Eddie Veder sounds terrific and Pearl Jam remains a worthy torchbearer for classic rock. 

19.  Camera Obscura - Desire Lines

 A lovely pop album from the Glagow band fronted by the excellent Tracyanne Campbell.

18.  Joseph Arthur - The Ballad of Boogie Christ

Joseph Arthur is an interesting cat.  He's tough to pin down but he's never boring on this creative and soulful album.  

17.  Elvis Costello and the Roots -  Wise Up Ghost

When I heard that Elvis Costello would be teaming up with the Roots, I wasn't surprised (Can any new Elvis Costello project really surprise us?) but I wasn't sure what to expect.  Thankfully, this is not an Elvis Costello hip-hop record.  It's Elvis doing his thing with funk and deep grooves.  Nice.

16.  State Champs - The Finer Things

It seems that every year some pop-punk band grabs my attention.  Last year it was the Menzingers from Scranton, PA.  This year, it's the exuberant State Champs from Albany, NY.  

15.  The National - Trouble Will Find me

It's not quite as good as High Violet but it is what we've come to expect from the National - moody and compelling.  Rolling Stone nailed it when they wrote that Matt Berninger moans "like a man drowning in too much merlot and just enough Leonard Cohen."  If you like that, you'll like this. 

14.  The Pastels - Slow Summits

What is it about Glasgow that results in such wonderful melancholy indie pop?  Before there was Belle and Sebastian, or Camera Obscura or even Teenage Fanclub, there were the Pastels, now back with a fine record.

13.  Superchunk - I Hate Music

Another band that hasn't lost a step.  One of the underrated indie bands of the 1990s, Superchunk has put together a strong work with plenty of ass-kicking pop-punk hooks.

12.  Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

Powerful singing on powerful songs - Neko Case keeps getting better (even if her album titles don't). 

11.  Los Campesinos! - No Blues
Underrated band from Wales offers a fine sampling of guitar-driven Britpop.  

10.  William Tyler - Impossible Truth

William Tyler plays guitar in Nashville's eclectic alt-country outfit, Lambchop.  I don't usually go for entire albums of instrumental guitar, but Tyler's playing and layered arrangements are utterly captivating.  It's like listening to America.

9.  Mark Mulcahy - Dear Mark J Mulcahy, I Love You

Mark Mulcahy's cult following includes Michael Stipe, ThomYorke and Nick Hornby.  On this album, you can hear what the fuss is about.   

8.  Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

For me, a pleasant surprise.  When Vampire Weekend hit the scene about five years ago, I figured they were a one-off.  Sure, I enjoyed them and critics loved they way these Columbia-educated kids dabbled in world music but I also thought they were a bit too clever and too cute for their own good (or mine).  But they deliver fine pop hooks and quality songwriting here. They're for real.

7.  Eleanor Friedberger - Personal Record

I had the pleasure of hearing Friedbeger (of the Fiery Furnaces) with John Wesley Harding's Cabinet of Wonders at the City Winery.  Her breathless singing recalls Patti Smith and her songs are melodious and engaging. 

6.  Deafheaven - Sunbather

I have never cared a fig for heavy metal and so the distinctions between the various subgenres - black metal, death metal, thrash metal - mean absolutely nothing to me.  But when I listen to Sunbather's swirling guitars, raw screams and crescendos of emotion, I don't hear metal.  I hear a symphony.

5. Jason Isbell - Southeastern

Do you remember when music was not just for background or accompanying some other activity but for actual listening?  When you just opened up and let the songs and heartache wash over you? If you don't, you can listen to Jason Isbell (formerly of the Drive-by Truckers) and he will remind you.   

4.  Caitlin Rose - The Stand-In 

A chanteuse who deserves our attention, Rose sings with a voice from old Nashville and a rock-n-roll heart.

3.  Arctic Monkeys - AM

There's always been something fun and appealing about the Monkey's misanthropy - the sneering, leering and snarling.  But here, there's also a bit of maturity and the songs, the cool beats and guitar riffs, have real staying power.

2.  Willie Nile - American Ride

No Springsteen in 2013?  No matter.  Willie Nile has been looking into the heart of America and rocking out with earnest, from-the-gut, sing-along, rock anthems for years.  On American Ride, he's never been better.

1.  Phosphorescent - Muchacho

I liked Phosphorescent's 2010 album, Here's to Taking it Easy, but it did strike me as standard alt-country-lite fare.  This time, Matthew Houck has significantly upped the ante with a mesmerizing and achingly beautiful album.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!   See you in 2014.  


Thursday, August 8, 2013

Americanarama Live at Jones Beach Theater: July 27, 2013

Americanarama is a silly name.  Let’s get that part of the way. 

But last spring, when a pairing of Wilco and Bob Dylan was announced, I was immediately sold.    And the pot sweetened when I learned that My Morning Jacket was on the bill, as was Grammy winner, Ryan Bingham.  So it was starting to look like a festival.  That concerned me a bit because there’s always the danger that it's too much and that individual sets will be too short.  Last summer, at Jones Beach, I saw a festival/show that featured Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveler, Cracker and Big Head Todd. And though everyone partied like it was 1995, my favorite band of the four, Cracker, played something like four whole songs.  I think we heard the entire set walking from the parking lot to the arena.  But with a 6:00 pm start time, Americanarama was unlikely to shortchange us.  The only catch was that for the Jones Beach show, My Morning Jacket would not be playing.  It would be Beck instead.  As much as I like My Morning Jacket, I like Beck too. There were no complaints here.
Except for the name.  Americanarama?  Well, you could at least see where the promoters were coming from.  Bob Dylan is not only a seminal figure in the history of American popular music, he has always drawn from many different and distinctly American – musical traditions:  folk, country, rock, blues etc.   Part of his particular genius is to rebel against easy categorization.  While he’s not the chameleon like figure he used to be, his most recent albums continue to draw acclaim.   Wilco is a fantastic band which, like Dylan, cannot be easily pigeon-holed.  Wilco sprang forth from the Uncle Tupelo divorce as an “alternative country” band but have transcended that genre with a sound that ranges from power pop to experimental noise-rock.   Front man Jeff Tweedy delivers as much Brian Wilson as Johnny Cash in his songs.   Then there’s Beck, the poet-slacker-savant who does it all. Blues, folk, hip-hop, electronica, you name it.  The most traditional act on the bill was also the youngest – the opening act, Ryan Bingham.  He’s a roots-rock and country singer of the most authentic kind, a singer songwriter in the tradition of Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt.  OK.  So, it’s Americanarama. 

Unfortunately, we missed Ryan Bingham’s set.  The problem with Jones Beach is Long Island.  I made the familiar mistake of underestimating the traffic and the time needed to park.  Still, there was that visceral thrill when you drive across the bay inlet and see the brick Venetian tower looming over Parking Field Four.  We settled into our seats towards the beginning of Beck’s set.   Beck was dressed in a black suit and fedora, looking like a bluesman of old, or, perhaps, a skinnier version of Van Morrison.  His trio played a full set (20 songs) that spanned his career (now 20 years).  He was subdued at times but very much locked in whether playing acoustic laments (“Lost Cause”) and delta blues (“One Foot in the Grave”).  And when he played the drum machine, he was clearly enjoying himself.   I ordinarily don’t approve of a drum machine at a rock show but this is Beck, after all, and his brand of acoustic electronica worked perfectly on playful tracks from Odelay like “Sissyneck” and “Where It’s At” and several tracks from his underrated 2008, album, Modern Guilt.
Wilco took the stage just as the sun began to set behind the amphitheater.  When the weather cooperates, there is something magical about seeing a concert at Jones Beach. The fading light colors the sky and the silvery water surrounding the bandshell and you feel the cool breeze off of Zach’s Bay. And when a band like Wilco takes the stage and the music washes over you, it’s just the way summer is supposed to be.  The band opened with “Born Alone” a song that encapsulates the musical range of the band of Wilco. It’s both sad and defiant, has a catchy guitar hook and it ends with a powerful instrumental crescendo, a musical descent that flirts with chaos, like an inversion of the Beatle’s, “A Day of Life”.  From there, they went into “Sunken Treasure” from the 1996’s Being There.  “Music is My Savior, and I was maimed by rock and roll,” sang Jeff Tweedy.   The crowd roared with approval.

When Uncle Tupelo, the vanguard of the alternative country scene, split up in 1994, the two leading song-writers, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar went their separate ways and formed Wilco and Son Volt, respectively.  It was an acrimonious break-up but I refused to take sides.  Why should I?  As much as I enjoyed Uncle Tupelo, I figured that with two spin-offs coming out of the break-up, it would be as if a great band multiplied.  Double the music.  And sure enough, in 1995, Wilco released A.M and Son Volt released Trace.  Two very fine albums.  So far, so good.   But in the following year, Wilco released, Being There, an ambitious double album that upped the ante by offering diverse musical styles and a songwriting depth that took the group to another level.  It was breakout album for Wilco and it established Tweedy as an artist who would not be fenced in by the boundaries of “alternative country” or any particular rock or pop music genre.  It’s something he has in common with Beck, not to mention a certain bard from Hibbing Minnesota.

About halfway through the set, Wilco played “Impossible Germany,” a crowd pleaser with a swaying, jazzy feel.  Twin guitars carry the melody’s main theme and then at the midway point, the song breaks into an extended, face-melting solo by Nels Cline who stands on the side of the stage, contorting his body while firing off bursts of sound with his guitar.  Cline joined Wilco in 2002, after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and brings a touch of experimentalism and avant-garde jazz to the band’s sound.  (It’s impossible to imagine him playing with Uncle Tupelo or Son Volt).  They follow with “The Art of Almost,” a long and eerie track loaded with electronic noise, sonic chaos and delight.  Wiilco closed their set with “A Shot in the Arm,” a favorite of mine from the Summerteeth album.   I wanted more but the best was yet to come. 

The highlight of the evening was Wilco’s encore. Beck came out and joined the band in a cover of the beautiful “I am the Cosmos” by Big Star’s Chris Bell.  Tweedy and Beck then traded vocals on “California Stars” from Mermaid Avenue, the album of Woody Guthrie songs played by Wilco and Billy Bragg.  It’s a song that sounds better outdoors.  (Really, it does!)  Next, they were joined onstage by the female duo, Cibo Matto and launched into a fun version of Beck’s slacker anthem “Loser” (“Choking on the Splinters!...”)  Tweedy then introduced Sean Lennon who brought the house down with rousing versions of “Yer Blues” from the Beatles White Album followed by “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver.  It was a thrilling ending that paid homage not only to John Lennon, but also to Bob Dylan.  ("Yer Blues" features the lyric “I’m feeling suicidal like Dylan’s Mr. Jones”).  Those two songs were worth the price of admission.

It was tough act to follow but then Bob Dylan doesn’t really follow anyone.   He does his own thing and his own thing is both captivating and confounding.   Even Dylan aficionados will concede that His Bobness is an uneven live performer.  He can be spellbinding one night and out-of-sync the next.   Well Dylan was less-than spellbinding this time around, but then I’m spoiled.  I’ve seen Dylan twice in the last 3 years and both times the shows were riveting.  Anyone who has heard Dylan sing in the past decade – on album or in concert -  knows that his voice is not what it used to be.  To non-fans, that may seem like a bizarre criticism but his signature nasally whine has transformed over time into a guttural croak.  He’s compensated for the decline of his instrument with a series of brilliant albums (since 1997’s Time Out of Mind) and style of delivery that lends him a certain gravity.  He’s no longer the 1960s “voice of his generation.”  Now he’s part carnival barker and part Old Testament Prophet.  His recent albums feature a range of songs from the American blues and folk tradition – depression era murder ballads, Mississippi floods, doomed love and wry musings about the end of things.   But on this night, the vocals were more garbled than usual.  He also played five or six songs from his classic period (the 1960s through 1974’s Blood on the Tracks) and, as he usually does, he completely transforms the arrangements.  It worked beautifully for “Tangled up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate” but less so for “She Belongs to Me” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”  Still, to hear those songs…

Dylan’s band is a crack outfit led by guitarist, Charlie Sexton on guitar.  The versatile Donnie Heron alternates between pedal steel, mandolin and banjo giving the songs a rich texture. When you watch the band play, you notice that every member is watching Dylan, practically at all times. Is this a sign of Dylan’s command as a band leader or is it because he is unsteady?  Perhaps both?  Of course, Dylan fans will tell you that the inconsistency of the live performance comes with the territory of an artist who takes risks and re-interprets his songs every time he sings them.  You simply never know what you’re gonna get and many fans wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Bob Dylan is 72 years-old.  And while I was watching him sitting behind the piano (he rarely plays guitar anymore), I thought of John Lennon.  If he were alive, he would be 73.  What kind of music would he be making?  What kind of performer would he be?  Would he still sound like John Lennon?  (Would he sound more like John Lennon than Sean Lennon did?)  Would he have re-united with Paul McCartney and charged $500 a ticket to hear Beatles songs?  Would he be singing love songs?  Socially conscious songs?  And would his new songs be any good? Would he break musical ground with each album? Would he continue to inspire his audience?  We’ll never know these things but you could feel the depth of his inspiration on everyone who took the stage - Beck, Jeff Tweedy and Dylan himself.  It felt as if John Lennon’s spirit was in ocean air on that summer night, and it sounded pretty good to me. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Top 10 Second Basemen Not in Cooperstown

It must have been a strange weekend in sleepy Cooperstown, New York.  The only Hall of Fame inductees were 19th century players, Hank O'Day and Deacon White and Jacob Ruppert, the brewer who owned the Yankees.  For the first time since 1965, there were no living inductees.  Blame it on steroids.  This was the year that Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds would have been voted in but the Baseball Writers decided that such tainted stars don’t belong.  That was no surprise.  But the complete shut-out was.  Also deprived of  Hall of Fame honors were Jack Morris, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and his Astro teammate, Craig Biggio.  Which brings us to Second Base.

Here are my top 10 Hall of Fame eligible second basemen who are not in the Hall:

10.       Junior Gilliam

The Dodger legend’s versatility works against him since he also played in hundreds of games at 3rd base and leftfield.  But Gilliam is most famous as the player who took over second base for Jackie Robinson and did it well enough to win Rookie of the Year in 1953.  He went on to play 14 seasons for Brooklyn and LA Dodgers and was a four-time World Series Champion.

9.         Del Pratt

A college football star at Alabama, Pratt starred for the St. Louis Browns in the years after World War I.  He also played for the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers.  He was a career .292 hitter and was among the top 10 American League RBI leaders over 5 seasons. 

8.         Frank White

An 18-year veteran for the Royals, White was the best fielding second baseman of his day, winning 8 gold glove awards.

7.         Buddy Myer

A career .303 hitter with over 2,000 hits, Myer played 17 seasons for the Washington Senators and won the batting title in 1935 with a .349 average.  No, he wasn’t Jewish. 

6.         Davey Lopes

A four-time all-star, Lopes joined Steve Garvey, Bill Russell and Ron Cey to form one of the longest running infields in baseball history.  He stole 557 stolen bases at an impressive 83% success rate. Lopes had a late start to his career, breaking into the majors at 27, the age when most players hit their prime. Here’s a remarkable statistic:  In 1985, at the age of 40, he stole 47 bases in 51 attempts.

5.         Willie Randolph

An excellent number 2 hitter and a terrific glove, Randolph was a six-time all star and key contributor to a Yankee squad that won two World Series.  He is ranked 5th all time in games played at second base.

4.         Larry Doyle

A career .290 hitter, Doyle starred for John McGraw’s Giants winning the Chalmers MVP award in 1912, while batting .330 with 90 RBIs.

3.                 Lou Whitaker

Partnered with Alan Trammell to form the longest running double-play combination in baseball history.   An excellent fielder, Whitaker had over 2300 hits, 255 home runs and 1000 RBIs. 

2.            Bobby Grich

Grich is the darling of sabermetricians like Bill James who convincingly argue that the six-time all star for the Orioles and Angels is one of the most under-rated players of all time.  Grich was a terrific pivot who won four Gold Gloves, and his 1800 career hits, 224 home runs and .266 batting average don’t tell full the story of his offensive value.  His adjusted OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) is the 6th greatest of all time among second basemen.

1.                Craig Biggio

Here is the guy who was missing from Cooperstown this weekend.  Biggio received 68% of the vote in 2013, his first year on the ballot.  (75% is needed).   Jeff Kent, who has hit more home runs than any second baseman in history, becomes eligible next year, but he wasn’t better than Biggio.  In 2001, Roberto Alomar was elected in his 2nd year of eligibility.  I would expect the same for Biggio.  Look for him to join Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas (at least) as Hall of Fame inductees in 2014.  The debates about steroids will continue in Cooperstown, but at least we'll also have some marvelous careers to talk about.   

Honorable Mention:   Bobby Avila, Davey Johnson, Tony Taylor, Chuck Knoblauch